Canon Geyer: “The Ongoing Reformation”
I begin with an inside story here at the Cathedral. When Dean Nathan Baxter, who could not be here today, asked me to be this morning’s preacher, he did so with quite a show of regret and even envy. He had taken note of the assigned lectionary texts for today: “All that good stuff,” he said, “about sin and iniquity and wickedness and the Pharisees. How I hate to miss any chance to preach on those things!” But then he laughed so loud that I had to wonder just how deep his envy really was. Still laughing, he added, “By the way, that’s Reformation Sunday—so see if you can make those texts fit that occasion.” So here goes!
This is indeed Reformation Sunday. On another late October day just 481 years ago, a thirty-threeyearold Augustinian Catholic monk, serving as a teacher of theology in Wittenberg, Germany, proposed an academic debate over a long list of Christian ideas and church practices. He posted that list on the door of the castle church there in Wittenberg: a door that was used as the university bulletin board.
That young monk could not have imagined the conflicts, the warfare, the personal jeopardy that would follow his proposed debate—much less that anyone would remember that act half a millennium later. His name was Martin Luther. And the posting of those 95 Theses has long been celebrated—or condemned—as the inauguration of the Protestant Reformation.
An eminent Roman Catholic theologian of our own time, Father Avery Dulles, has rightly noted that “Luther envisaged the Reformation as a corrective movement within the Catholic Church…but not a separate church. The only church which he willed to reform was the one holy Catholic Church….If all this is true, we must conclude that Luther’s Reformation is still an ongoing thing.”
Father Dulles’s line, “the Reformation is still an ongoing thing,” is our theme this morning—and you’ll soon see that we have no difficulty connecting that theme with “all that good stuff about sin and iniquity and the Pharisees.”
Reformation Sunday hasn’t always shown Protestantism at its most charitable. In years gone by, it often was the occasion for preachers to bash the Catholic Church and the pope. It was a day for some Protestant potentates to claim a Protestant monopoly on the power to reform the church, appealing to that mysticalsounding Latin phrase, ecclesia semper reformanda (the one church always being reformed).
But then along came Good Pope John 23rd, and the Second Vatican Council, and aggiornamento, the spirit of renewal generated in the 1960s: a spirit that not only reformed the Catholic Church worldwide but moved it decisively toward ecumenical cordiality and interfaith dialogues, and human rights, and pacem in terris (peace on earth).
Now to be fair about all this, some Catholic hierarchs before John 23rd echoed the Vatican historian who, early in this century, described Luther as a “faithless monk who married a runaway nun and who started the Reformation in order to give play to his own lust.” In 1950, another Catholic leader declared: “The problem of deciding which is the true Church boils down to this question: Whom are you to believe—Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, or Jesus Christ, the divine founder of the Catholic Church?”
The historical fact is that hostilities among Christians, and between Christianity and other faiths, have accounted for a ghastly amount of the world’s warfare and suffering for centuries—and still do so.
Perhaps the awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the reconciled Catholic and Protestant leaders of Northern Ireland, John Hume and David Trimble, may serve as a benediction of religious as well as political peace in that longembittered corner of the Christian world—as well as a token of the sheer courage that Christian peacemaking may require anywhere in the world.
So Reformation Sunday can be, should be, a Repentance Sunday and a Reconciliation Sunday: a day when Christians of any tribe, instead of praying like the Pharisee, “God, we thank you we are not like other people, like those Catholics, or those Muslims!” decide to pray like the penitent tax collector: “God, be merciful to us sinners: us Episcopalians, us Methodists, us Christians.”
There! I’ve made the lectionary connection!
No preaching or teaching about the church, any church, must ever be allowed to conceal the sinfulness within the church, any church. That alltoohuman fact should forever persuade us that “the Reformation is still an ongoing thing.”
We are better equipped for a reconciling future among Christians if we come to a better understanding of the past—of the Reformation itself and the times in which it burst forth. We are helped in this by the more ecumenical scholarship among today’s church historians that is neither Protestant nor Catholic, and understands the Reformation, not as a single unified movement, but as a mix of many religious, social and political happenings.
Before 1600, there were also humanist, Reformed, Anabaptist and, yes, even Catholic reformations. And long before Luther, came Francis of Assisi, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale and Jan Hus: all preReformation reformers, all of whom witnessed against corruption in the church. Tyndale, who translated the New Testament, and Hus, the Czech preProtestant Protestant, were both martyrs, thrown bodily into the flames.
But then Protestant memory must forever be informed by the fact that Martin Luther himself was sometimes rather anti-Jewish and savagely demanded that German princes crush a peasant insurrection with merciless slaughter. And the fact that John Calvin saw to it that his theological adversary, Miguel Servetus, be burned at the stake in Geneva. And the fact that the English Reformation, in whose tradition this Cathedral stands, came about largely because of the multiplicity of marital shenanigans and barbaries of Henry VIII. Reformation history is abloody subject!
But, oh yes, there are things, great things, to be celebrated in the heritage of the Reformation. In those 95 Theses of Martin Luther: the affirmation that repentance is not a single act but a lifelong habit of mind and spirit—and that the true treasury of the church is God’s forgiving grace. And in Luther’s later writings: the proclamation of the priesthood of all believer and the paradoxical meaning of Christian liberty: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, subject to everyone.” (That lyrical epigram, of course, is itself subject to reformation—for the sake of that other gender we have recently discovered!)
Perhaps we should be especially grateful for what some Catholic theologians have recently had to say about “the positive principles” of the Protestant Reformation: principles they believe to be at the heart of Catholic faith itself. Principles like the sovereignty of God, the affirmation Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone), the primacy of Scripture, the free gift of salvation, justification by faith.
What might a stillongoing Reformation require of us Christians in our time—an authentic ecclesia semper reformanda, a church faithfully and patently open even to transformation? We’ve been doing some fresh thinking about that—we who share the ministry of this Cathedral that dares to call itself “A House of Prayer for All People.” This has been an extraordinary weekend in which we have inaugurated the Cathedral’s observance of the millennial theme “Jubilee 2000: Proclaiming God’s Love for a New Era,” and celebrated the 100th anniversary of our Peace Cross, and begun our recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and been stunningly blessed by the saintly presence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
In passing, let me mention that there will be another Reformation service here at the Cathedral this afternoon: a Lutheran service in this Anglican Cathedral. I believe the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will come into full communion by the year 2000: mutual recognition of ministries and sacraments and sharing jointly in mission.
Two weeks from now, in this place, a twoday conference titled “Two Sacred Paths: Christianity and Islam.” So some new things are happening!
The Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, the Jubilee Assembly, opens in Harare, Zimbabwe, in early December. The World Council is struggling to shape a new pattern of ecumenical relationships embracing all churches, especially including those not now belonging to the Council: Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal and others—perhaps serving as more of a dialogical forum than as an expanded parliamentary or bureaucratic body. But whatever happens at the global level, cannot we create such forums in this country, even in local communities: safe places in our civil society where our churches together provide hospitality to common concerns and controversies? Our National Cathedral Association around the country is projecting such an ecumenical role in many communities.
A tougher issue is whether or when we Christians will ever achieve the Eucharist as a sacrament of unity and hospitality among all baptized Christians. The World Council’s widelyheralded 1982 document on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry confessed: “Insofar as Christians cannot unite in full fellowship around the same table to eat the same loaf and drink from the sane cup, their…witness is weakened at both the individual and corporate levels.” It may be that only pressure from below, from the committed members of churches that still maintain eucharistic exclusion, will bring about that reformation.”
But it is precisely the power of Christians of the most varied tribes and tongues and colors, in the ineffable love and grace of Jesus Christ, to witness together for justice and peace and the integrity of all creation that, now and always, must claim the ongoing reformation of the churches.
And in that same love and grace, Christian reformation requires a new solidarity with believers in other faith communities—not as a sellout to syncretism, or to some lowest common denominator of religiosity—but precisely because in Jesus Christ we know we are one humanity, and we are to break down the dividing walls of hostility, and because he is Prince of Peace.
In 1995, when the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco was celebrated at Grace Cathedral in that city, Bishop William Swing and others were seized with a vision of what such a new interfaith solidarity could mean for the peace of the world. Three years later, a rapidly growing international fellowship is sharing in the drafting of a “Charter for United Religions.” The introduction to the current working draft of that Charter offers this irresistible appeal:
Imagine a world . . .
where there is peace among religions, where people from a diversity of religions and spiritual traditions and from all sectors of society gather at common tables all over the world to pursue justice, healing and peace with reverence for all life,
where there is a United Religions,…a spiritual partner of the United Nations, where local actions are connected to form a global presence, where the wisdom of faith traditions is revered, where the deepest values of people are respected and put into action for the good of all.
The United Religions is a dream whose time has come.
Dear Friends: Reformation Day is a good day to share that dream! Amen.